At the end of December 2018, I was once again sitting in the head office of
But you have put all of this into perspective. The Victorian technology was installed in British colonial times, and by 2009, a colour light signalling system was to replace the semaphores. But the installation was abandoned very quickly after they simply drowned after the first monsoon! So the semaphores got a reprieve. But they had already been badly damaged, the finials, disappeared gradually and none of the signals were illuminated any more. Year after year, photographers were still able to enjoy the semaphores, until their now foreseeable end in 2018.
But one question remained: when would the new colour light signal system go into operation? Well, that was not supposed to be until 2020. Couldn't the semaphores be left standing that long, was my next question? The department head in charge denied this, but his colleague, the General Manager of Passenger Transport, who was about to retire at the time, said that it would be possible to leave them standing at least that long, albeit without any function. After some discussion, I was assured that the signals would still be there in December 2019 and that we would get one last chance to take photos with them. The main line, however, as well as the stations would already be under reconstruction by the end of 2019. The section one kilometre south of Payagyi was taken out of the construction plan at our request and would only be touched after December 2019. Payagyi is where the photographic classic par excellence is located, the Payagyi pagoda within sight of the railway. It was also hoped that there would be further delays in the construction process, which might leave many sections unaltered.
The 2019 monsoon was fierce and there were not only delays but also deaths. But the construction work had been awarded to a predominantly foreign consortium, in which mainly Japanese were in charge. And
Traffic on the Nyaunglebin Madauk branch line was also discontinued on the same date. This line was part of our program only the year before we had, at considerable financial expense, worked on it to the point where it could be re-opened for the use of a steam locomotive. The scheduled service on this branch only saw one railcar on day “A” from Pyuntaza via Nyaunglebin to Madauk and on day “B” back to Pyuntaza. Unattractive and highly uneconomical, especially as the more or less parallel road had been widened and newly paved on most sections.
From the head office I was asked which tracks I could do without at Bago station because the construction companies did not want to wait until the end of December. We agreed on two tracks that were photographically desirable. In October the signal boxes were also shut down and shortly afterwards the signal arms of the now functionless semaphores were removed. This alone caused me “ventricular fibrillation”, but from the head office came reassuring noises. The signal arms would kept safe and be re-attached for our photo charters and the good news that the signals could also be set manually. The photos of the “naked” signals I received did not look good!
The points in Nyaunglebin which connect the line to Madauk should be removed in November 2019 and the main line track, from which the Madauk line branches, lifted. But this line had been promised to us and so there were instructions from Naypyitaw to stop the dismantling until mid-December.
Before the trip we also visited the other pressure points such as the turntable in Mokpalin. This was no longer usable, so we paid a team of railwaymen to restore the turntable to working order.
The Pyuntaza triangle, which we repaired for the 2017 trip, was also no longer usable. A construction track had been laid through the middle of the triangle and the tracks of the triangle had been removed. To be on the safe side, we had this construction track removed and made the triangle usable again.
One week before we arrived in
In addition to this, they offered us that instead of Bago, they would re-equip the semaphores in Pyuntaza with signal arms. This, however, required a change in the programme if we wanted to have enough time in Pyuntaza. Three days before the trip, I was already on site, we changed it and our new program was approved.
As the tour started it was actually already “five past midnight” for the line to Madauk, for the semaphores and for the main line. To make the best out of it certain flexibility was required. So after a short night in Bago the group went to Pyuntaza before sunrise. Once there, our YC was already in steam. The semaphores at the northern and southern side of the station were all completely equipped with arms, the one at the south entrance to the station even better than 2018, when one of the four arms had crossed out. But the ongoing construction work could not be completely controlled, and two main tracks were missing. Between the platforms they had completely excavated the ballast and were just going to level the ground for the new track. The station ends on both sides, however, were almost untouched, and the red/white fluttering tape was removed for photos. As promised by the head office, the signals could be still operated manually. Thus, we got some nice photos before we moved on to the line to Madauk in the afternoon.
Having arrived in Madauk, we wanted to take some pictures of the departure. But the YC had a problem; it was hardly possible to start and accelerate the train. Steam was leaking from the top of the boiler so I got on the locomotive and tried it out myself. The engine was hardly able to move even with the regulator fully open and the cut off at maximum. The typical noise from leaking superheater elements did not emerge from the firebox, so it had to be the snifting valve, a very British eccentricity. With tools and two bricks, a mechanic went onto the top of the boiler. He laid the bricks under his flip-flops and crouched down in front of the snifting valve. Without bricks, his flip-flops would probably have melted. The valve was hot and could only be unscrewed with lots of oil and the use of a hammer. Inside you could see the problem, the guide tappet of the sealing plate was broken. With the part, wrapped in a cleaning rag, the mechanic went on the back of a motorbike to the village blacksmith only he could weld on a suitable piece of pipe. The newly repaired valve was reassembled. Afterwards the locomotive had the power again, which the pressure-reduced boiler was able to provide more than sufficient for our train. However, much time had elapsed that we now had no chance to reach the crucial stop of the line in daylight, Pazunmyaung, better known as Pottery Station. There we had had dozens of pots piled up at the platform and loading workers ordered, as well as train passengers to make the train look authentic. This was all of no use now. So we called the head office and asked if we could let the locomotive and train (crew) stay overnight in Madauk and make up the trip the following day. After a short discussion they agreed to this and organized water for the locomotive and catering as well as overnight accommodation for the staff. We also tried to persuade the pottery to bring dozens of pots to the Pazunmyaung stop and to provide loading workers for the following day. The organization of extras as train passengers also proved difficult. But as money had already changed hands, all arrangements were carried over to the following day. It should be the last train on this line. We took some more shots in the last afternoon light before we got on our bus back to Bago.
To make sure that everything would work out the next day because we didn't have a third chance without cut backs in the further program we asked for a spare locomotive to be sent to Madauk and this was quickly approved by the head office. We had planned the YD for our trip over the main line, so it was already in Pyuntaza. The next morning it was to be brought in steam to Madauk. Or so it was supposed to be. But a few kilometres before Madauk the locomotive derailed! Now our spare loco blocked the departure of our train. The rescue train moved out, the diesel locomotive hurried to the scene of the accident, and so did a trolley. Around one pm with the help of winches the locomotive was back on the track and was now carefully towed by the diesel locomotive to Madauk station. The trolley followed and then the rescue train before the track was finally cleared.
In the most beautiful afternoon light we got exactly the pictures we wanted to take. This was the reason why we had let them work through the line to Madauk 2018. Pottery, which was busily loaded onto the train, was photographed three times. In addition, we passed one of the potteries where the pots laid out to dry were brought to the warehouse just as our train was steaming by. A herd of water buffalos offered further opportunities as well as the well-known, filigree bridge which we photographed shortly before sunset.
On the last day of its existence, Madauk station saw more traffic than it had had seen in decades. There were two steam locomotives, a diesel locomotive, the motorized breakdown relief train and a little speeder present. For the villagers this was the last chance to say goodbye to their railway. But except for a few waving to the train, hardly anyone took notice of it. The railway is disappearing more and more from the daily life of the Burmese, if it had ever even registered!
At the end of 2019 the points from the main line to the Madauk branch line were lifted. The end of an era but at least it ended with steam. The line was once to be built across the
After that Madauk day everything went like clockwork. Our locomotive could be turned in Mokpalin, the sun shone from the wall to wall without it being too warm, the semaphores in Bago got their wings back. However, these were crossed out, and really only for our photo runpasts the crosses were removed. It looked as it could have looked ten years ago. But it really was a farewell photo the main line from Yangon to
We also celebrated the "most important" photo motif of the main line. For this purpose we had an additional to the program special train from Bago to Payagyi. The railway administration supported us, and although construction work was already in full swing at Payagyi station, the line south of it by the double bridge had been left untouched. The week before, we had had the weeds between the tracks permanently removed in a massive effort by local forces, so both lines were clearly visible.
When we reached Bago with our charter train at sunset, the workers were already back on the gantry removing the signal arms this time for good. The gantry will also soon be history, and then there will be nothing which can bring back the glory of the main line. We consider ourselves lucky to have been there at “five past midnight”!
So I went back to the main offices in Naypyitaw at the end of December 2019. After the journey is before the next journey, so I had another appointment at the main administration of the state railway. Exactly the same office as 2017 and back then still no air conditioning! But for the state railway's concession to my plans, we bought two a/c units. So now chilled, but not frozen. No Elsa jokes please!
Steam charter trains to Lashio were once again discussed. One has to keep the topic on the table, even if it does not seem opportune to travel to this region at the moment, for political/military as well as railway reasons. However, it took me nine years of negotiations to get metre gauge steam locos back to service, so never give up! In preparation of the negotiations I had an audience in Thazi. In Thazi you find GC 833 (a Garratt) on plinth. I examined this locomotive as far as I could. Scale inside the boiler, but the wall thickness gives hope that it is still in good condition despite a few missing tubes and missing fittings like injectors. No problems were seen on the frame, the motion and the engine. Some bearings are missing, but they can be replaced. Nevertheless this will become an expensive, major project. But if we don’t think big we won’t succeed big So we will write a letter to the ministry with the request to let two engineers from the repair shop Mahlwagon have a look at the locomotive and to estimate the refurbishment costs in US dollars.
But the country offers more spectacular lines, not only the one to Lashio. The "problem" of semaphores, or rather their disappearance from Bago, was also discussed. I was suggested that I go to Letpadan. There is also a "small Sittaung bridge" on the way to the former ferry port in Tharrawaw. This bridge is difficult to reach by road. Before the construction of the railway bridge, the railway ferry port in Tharrawaw was of great importance, and at the junction of the main line Yangon - Pyay, the oldest railway in
So after the meeting at the headquarters we sat in the car and drove seven hours to Letpadan. Arriving at midnight, the next day began at six o'clock in the morning to see the scheduled morning train on the aforementioned and much praised bridge. Indeed, the road conditions turned out to be so difficult that we decided to turn back in order to be able to photograph the train anywhere at all. Our car had multiple ground contacts because the potholes of the narrow asphalt strip were simply too deep. So we went to the station Letpadan.
What a jewel! An almost completely intact infrastructure from the last century and we’re talking about the beginning of it! The mechanical signal cabin on the northern side may have been built around 1950, but the one on the south side is out of a fairy tale and seems to have survived the last hundred years without any changes. On the southern side of the station there is a golden pagoda, and all this is framed by wonderful semaphores, some of them even with their finials. In addition, the branch line to Tharrawaw has much more to offer than the riveted and rather difficult to photograph bridge. There are several, long, filigree steel girder bridges in east-west orientation, which cross sea-like remains of the Irrawaddi River, because the line runs straight through the old main arm of Burma's mightiest river.
We were only in search of a replacement for the Madauk line, but after what I found in Letpadan, one cannot spend only one day there. How to get to Tharrawaw is also being investigated. We have already been to the
The scheduled trains on the lines around Letpadan were, without exception, quite well patronised if not actually overcrowded, due in part to the road conditions in the area.
And there it was again, the anxious question about the foreseeable life expectancy of the glorious semaphores and signal cabins. At headquarters I was told that there are no plans to modernize this station within the next two years.
So in Letpadan the clock question remains. Midnight? Five to or five past? My instinct is it’s more like eleven fifteen!!
King Bago is dead! Prince Letpadan may soon be crowned the new King. FarRail hopes to arrange the coronation!
Be there! Before it is too late a second time.
More (different) pictures can found in the German trip report.
And yes, the country has more to offer than railways ...